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Summer of Sam

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Summer of Sam

Starring: Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense

Review by Walter Frith
2 stars out of 4

Spike Lee disregards many aspects of the Hollywood establishment and makes films his way and for good reason. Because he is such a socially aware film maker, his subject matter cannot fall victim to the studio system because it simply wouldn't come off as credible. I've liked and recommended every Spike Lee film I've ever seen, including one from 1996 entitled 'Get on the Bus' about a group of African-American men who drive across America to attend the million man march in Washington D.C. A small film of large academic proportions, it is one of Lee's most under rated films and in many ways is as good or better than his masterpiece, 'Do the Right Thing' (1989) or his runner-up 'Malcolm X' (1992). 1995's 'Clockers' stands out as one of Lee's most lethal film of the 90's and all of the films I've mentioned have one thing in common: focus. Unfortunately, Lee's latest film doesn't have it.

'Summer of Sam' is a well acted, well directed but poorly written film about the hellish summer of 1977. I turned 12 in 1977 and have some vivid memories about that year. Entertainment losses were astonishing that year. The world parted ways with Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and Bing Crosby. The biggest pop culture phenomenon of the 20th century, 'Star Wars', was born on film and there was so much snow that fell where I live that nearby Buffalo, New York was shipping much of it to Florida in train boxcars and a local t.v. station in Buffalo created and sold a board game based on that weather blister called 'Blizzard of '77'. It was also the year when a summertime horror story, that spanned over a year, was told in New York City which serves only as a minor point in Lee's latest film when it should have been the central focus of his story.

David Berkowitz, a man who claims Satan spoke to him through the mouth of a big black dog and urged him to kill, went on a mass murder spree, attacking at night and shooting young women with dark, shoulder length hair and even attacking them most helplessly while sitting in their cars with a companion. This would have been a fascinating story to tell because combining the sympathy felt for Berkowitz's victims along with trying to find out what made him do it and having debate among people who enjoyed such films as 'The Silence of the Lambs', could have made 'Summer of Sam' a classic but I was shocked to find out what the film does instead. It takes a handful of crude, unmannered people and tries to tell a story nearly two and a half hours long based on their domestic problems, sexual escapades, ignorance and shallow approach to life. It's one of those movies that slips into enormous tedium after the first half hour is up and you still have almost two full hours to go!

Meet Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). They're a young married couple who have a problem. Vinny likes to play the field. He cheats on Dionna with her own cousin and chases anything in a skirt including his boss, a much older woman at a beauty salon. Vinny and his pals hang out by dead end streets near the waterside, some dealing drugs and there is always the "tough guy" factor where the guys are always getting into scraps to see who is the toughest. A stand out member of the cast is Adrien Brody ('The Thin Red Line') as Ritchie, a punk rocker wannabe who is suspected by his friends later in the film as being the serial killer. Other major members of the cast are Jennifer Esposito, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben Gazzara and Bebe Neuwirth.

Strangely, I kept thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Boogie Nights' from 1997, another film set in the disco era where a group of similarly unattractive characters appeared in an attractive film about the lives of a group of adult film personalities and the porno business was used as a metaphor. This film spanned a total of six years and gave the character's lives focus as they progressed, matured and made choices affecting the rest of their lives. This was an appealing story with excellent execution. 'Summer of Sam', as well acted and directed as it is puts one in mind of a car lost on a belt way and going around and around in circles.. The film goes around and around and when the final act is played out, you feel the same way about its main personalities as when the film began. What little progress there is is muffled by the fact that the murder plot is a throw away and you're not exactly sure what the film's message is when it's all said and done. It all looks like no one cares.

Visit FILM FOLLOW-UP by Walter Frith

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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